into the heart of Mexico to find Iowa
A simple life of poverty, joy
By Art Cullen
set Sunday over the mountains surrounding Santa Rita, a
pretty little pueblo of 4,500 people.
I threw my
bag in one of a half-dozen rooms at the Pueblita Hotel,
and walked outside for a smoke overlooking the town
square. A man and his son stood on the corner next door
at a soda fountain.
noches,” I said.
evening,” the young man replied.
your English is good,” I told him.
okay. I lived in Storm Lake for 10 years,” he
So it was
that I met José Liceas and his son, Brian, 10,
the first people I encountered in Storm Lake’s
sister city 2,500 miles from home.
I was not
so far from home after all. José bid me welcome,
mi nuevo amigo. But no friends are new, I was reminded,
all are old.
Four Storm Lakers made the trek to
West Central Mexico in the state of Jalisco: City
Councilwoman Sara Monroy-Huddleston, Public Safety
Director Mark Prosser, Code Enforcement Officer Scott
Olesen and I. We flew out of Omaha Sunday, Oct. 9, not
knowing what to expect. My idea of Mexico was formed by
the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns: the rotund
banditos with belts of bullets strapped around their
shoulders and a few teeth, dirty spans of desert dotted
with adobe taverns.
corn-fed anxiety as we wait outside the Guadalajara
airport for our hosts from Ayotlan County. Up walks
Sergio Quezada, a handsome man of 30 in a sharp black
suit and open-neck white pressed shirt, accompanied by
three lovely señoritas: Johanna Soto, Aricelli
Tabarez and Aricelli Perez. Johanna, a native of
Phoenix, speaks perfect English. Relief washes over me.
We pile in
the blue state-owned van and traverse winding roads
southeast from Guadalajara, a city the size of Chicago,
for a 90-minute journey into the isolated heart of
sights: green corn, Pioneer Hi-Bred signs, teal-colored
agabe (ah-gah-bey) for tequila, John Deere tractors,
Holstein cows, bicyclists and horses on the highway,
adobe businesses and dwellings in brilliant purple,
yellow, red and blue whizzing past.
We make a
pit stop. I try to buy a bottle of water. Sergio will
not hear of it. This is on him. Everything is.
José worked at Tyson Fresh
Meats for 10 years, so he could afford to return to
Santa Rita five years ago and work in the El Mexicano
meat processing plant. He is why we went — to
find Iowa in a different nation.
everyplace we looked.
classroom: How many of you have friends or family in
go up, the faces beam.
pool hall: the proprietor, Ruben Mendoza, has an uncle,
Javier Torres in Storm Lake and other family in
Denison. (Turns out Raul Andrade of Storm Lake, who
loads turkeys for Sara Lee, also is Torres’
county government building: Ayotlan County Councilwoman
Norma Arambula of Santa Rita thanks Storm Lake for
taking care of her town’s children so far away.
She has heard the stories of the big and warm hearts in
Guadalajara: Ted Segura, a native of Mexico, wears a
University of Iowa class ring on his pinkie while
sipping fine tequila. Ted was the 1958 NCAA champion in
gymnastics for the Hawkeyes. His son is a doctor in
Omaha. The mariachi band in the restaurant takes a
break. Ted and I deliver a rousing rendition of the
Iowa Fight Song, written by Meredith Willson. We talk
Forrest Evashevski and Alex Karras, then depart with
the shout: “Go Hawks!”
Lake delegation was invited by Ayotlan County to
establish a sister city relationship through the states
of Jalisco and Iowa. The relationship is a piece of
paper formalizing what has existed de facto for the
better part of a decade. They come from Santa Rita to
Storm Lake, they work, they dream of going home someday
to this pretty little place full of warm hearts and sad